Monsoon Subeditor Timothy Magarry explores the effects of a Japanese imperial abdication on its calendar, asking – what year is it?
When Japan’s Emperor Akihito’s desire to abdicate made the news last month, it raised a slew of questions around the process. Are the rumours true? When would the changeover occur? Is it even legally possible for him to retire? Lurking in the peripheries, however, is a deceptively simple question that needs to be addressed above all else:
What will the next era be called?
While the western calendar is of course widely used, Japan continues to use its traditional system, consisting of two ‘kanji’ characters and a number denoting the year of the Emperor’s reign (for example, 2016 is Heisei 28 – 平成28年). Owing to its official status, this system is found in nearly all formal and official documents, from certificates and licences right up to legal documents, government policies, and tax invoices. Much to the dismay of foreign residents unfamiliar with the system, it is also often the only option provided for many standard processes such as postal services, banking and phone contracts.
So when those two little characters suddenly change, there are far-reaching consequences.
Where many countries are increasingly moving towards the digital, Japan stands out for its bureaucratic attachment to paper and carbon copies. Though it claims to recycle 52% of all this, confessions of deceit and mislabelling from the eight largest paper manufacturers in Japan have brought that figure to around 5-10%. Adding to this problem are the many municipalities and older citizens who still treat paper as “burnable rubbish”, and the belief that recycled paper is of lower quality. If millions of pages were to suddenly become useless, there is concerning reason to believe that the environment may take a toll.
Of course, computers are also affected. Any software with the option to display dates and times in the Japanese calendar format would need to release an update to introduce the new era name. Since the combination of characters used must be entirely original (i.e. no pre-existing words, names or places), they would also need to be added to the on-board dictionary. Without this, the user would have to individually select the characters for the era name whenever they type the date and have no access to conveniences like Auto-fill features. This seems fairly minor (and in the grand scheme of things it’s not the worst problem), but for Japanese word-processing, it’s effectively the difference between touch typing and typing with only your two index fingers (cf. anyone’s grandad).
Fortunately, history suggests that the path of least resistance prevails, but still with added burdens. During the last transition, most official forms were simply amended using corrective stickers or stamps, but this still resulted in huge unforeseen costs and overtime as employees fixed the individual forms. Calendars, diaries, greetings cards and anything with ‘incorrect’ years printed saw a brief, sharp jump in sentimental and novelty value, but were otherwise disposed as the new ‘correct’ products shipped in. Driver’s licences with validity dates extending past the end of the era were formally tolerated to avoid having to reissue every licence in the country. Nevertheless, conversion between the two systems continued to be a source of confusion during ID checks and licence renewals for many years to come.
The root cause of all this confusion and disruption is simply the fact that a new era name is never prepared or even considered beforehand.
When the previous Shouwa Emperor died in 1989, a team of poets, thinkers and the cabinet ministry were given until the day’s end to decide the new era name. Of the three suggestions put forward – Heisei (平成), Shouka/Seika (正化), and Shuubun (修文) – the decision for Heisei was ultimately made on the grounds that it was the only one that didn’t start with an S when written in English. If this sounds rather arbitrary, that’s because it is, but no more so than the Meiji Emperor, who simply picked his era name out of a hat at random.
This last-minute work ethic may work for the federal cabinet and most university students, but it inconveniences the entire country without a moment’s notice and leaves the rest of society to pick up the pieces.
Regardless of whether Akihito is permitted to abdicate, the message is clear that neither he nor his era will last much longer. There is clearly little thought put into selecting an era name, so why not pick the next one now and give Japan the chance to be prepared?
Timothy Magarry is undertaking a Juris Doctor at the Australian National University, where he previously studied Asia-Pacific Studies and Music.